I told you about me, recently?
As a developed western society, we are obsessed with ourselves
there been any real change since the Millennium some 28 months ago?
Amongst the '100 Best of' lists, the irrelevant future predictions, and
the sweeping historical summaries that filled the newspapers either side
of the turn of the millennium, one thing stood out. Out of the tremendous
media hype that surrounded the event, newspaper and television editors
caught at the idea of a dawn of hope and optimism and it became the central
theme of the celebration.
The turn of the century took on a new meaning for us all. The 1990s had
been the decade of 'me,' but a burst of post-millennial optimism would
usher in an era of 'us' instead. It would be an era of rediscovered communality,
the media told us. We would discard our mobile phones and unplug ourselves
from our Walkmans. We would travel on buses again (together!) instead
of in our cars, and spend the time thinking and worrying about each other
instead of solely about ourselves. Perhaps the defining image of it all
was the release of thousands of white doves from Manger Square in Jerusalem.
What a wonderful vision it was.
But the last time that I checked, it hadn't happened. Furthermore, the
hope and optimism that a sanctimonious media promised us would be ushered
in seems to have evaporated, and we're only in year two. Instead, we have
extremist groups hijacking aeroplanes and the horror of September 11th,
the election of far-right politicians in Austria, Portugal, Spain, Belgium,
the fall of Grozny, the crushing of Afghanistan, the rise of Le Pen in
France on the back of fear of immigrants and increased hostilities between
Israel and Palestine. So much for the doves.
Far from being the dawn of a brave new century, we have clearly slipped
right back into the old one. The poor are still poor, the rich are still
getting richer, AIDS is still spreading (particularly in Africa), and
millions are still knocked out by a bout of 'flu. And, unsurprisingly,
we are still thinking about ourselves all the time. People were self-obsessed
before the millennium and nothing has changed. Indeed, the weeks leading
up to the big event itself were ones of worrying about me - what will
I do, where will I be, will I have a good time?
The Guardian and The Observer were the worst offenders for these false
predictions. Recently, the headline 'Enough Of Me, Me, Me - Let's Talk
About Us' filled the cover of the Guardian's Saturday magazine. The long
feature article examined a selection of communal experiences and trends
that were possibly a reaction to the rampant individualism of the 1990s,
and concluded: "after years of fretting over Me, we might be on the
brink of the decade of us."
Of course, the article is interpretative and provocative rather than definitive.
It offers a cheeky resume of the previous decade's trends and at least
takes an optimistic stance against the pessimism that dominates much of
the rest of the media. Bad news sells, after all. But you don't need to
be a hardened cynic to see the failings in the article. It assumed that
the dawn of the new century really would usher in some kind of new age
for human society. Unfortunately, everyone else saw through that media
hype, and that the 'dawn of a new age' rhetoric was simply a marketing
device to sell a few more newspapers.
The Observer also spoiled the effect of the article somewhat, by immediately
launching a four-part series called 'The New You' in Life magazine. It
was a complete guide to self-improvement for the Twenty-first century.
It offered helpful tips on dieting, working out, personality development,
and had a few pseudo-analytical articles with titles like 'Dejunk your
Life.' But it had precious little to say about 'us.'
The fact is that the date may have changed but that is all - society remains
much the same, except that the champagne producers are now sitting around
counting up the piles of money they made. If ever there was a false dawn,
then the millennium was it. And if anyone ever believed that one good
party, a useless metal dome and a change of date would turn society on
its head, then they were literally on another planet.
We continue to be bombarded with information focussing on the self. We
are constantly urged to improve it. Magazines are full of self-improvement
programmes or advice for the individual, from fashion and beauty tips
in women's magazines to 'Tone that six-pack' regimes in Loaded or FHM,
for whose readers a 'six-pack' realistically means nothing more than their
Television advertisements for toiletries reassure you that 'you're worth
it' - yes, go out and spend a fortune on that skin cream which actually
does absolutely nothing. 'It Could Be You' the Lottery reminds us, and
perhaps there is no more powerfully selfish advertising slogan than that.
It promises you heaven through individual gain - all that money just for
Self-improvement books for the individual sell by the million, on every
subject from cookery and dieting to finances and Feng Shui. There is always
at least one in the Top Five; this week's is 'Mars and Venus: 365 Ways
to Keep Passion Alive' by John Gray, sitting at number four. Top of the
list is the 'Who Wants to be a Millionaire? Quiz Book,' which has sold
337,000 copies. The odds may be terrible, but 'Who Wants to be a Millionaire?'
is the ultimate chance for self-improvement. Remember, it could be you...
I suspect that if you asked people what they would most like to change
in their lives, a huge percentage would say they would have more money,
as this has inextricably become linked with self-improvement.
The Internet is also full of self-help sites. There is 'Self Improvement
Online,' the 'Self Improvement Channel,' or if you would prefer it, 'Unusual
Alternatives for Self-Improvement' which urges you to 'KEEP AN OPEN MIND'
when visiting their site's contents. There are thousands of them, and
advice for every type of pain or problem, or any area of your life that
you feel needs pepping up. The Internet itself has quickly gone from being
a huge pool of free information based upon sharing, to become a corporate
stalking ground and a device used to make individuals into overnight paper
All of this adds up to a massive overload of self-improvement plans and
lists coming at us from all angles. Of course, the truth is that they're
just feeding demand. As a developed western society, we are obsessed with
ourselves. There are standards and levels to aspire to, whether you want
to be richer, thinner or browner. Almost nothing is good enough.
There is an even more dangerous result of this self-obsession. A natural
result of self-obsession is that the rest of the world is forgotten about.
So whilst we're busy worrying about ourselves, the rest of the world must
get on with starving, or living under oppressive regimes, or struggling
to feed their family.
Whilst in the west people get excited about the Internet and new mobile
phone technology, the majority of the world's population have yet to make
their first phone call. Global starvation should be the driving issue
that all governments are addressing; instead it is left to rock stars,
comedians and charity groups to campaign about. Thousands of young girls
still develop anorexia or bulimia attempting to fit themselves into society's
accepted norms of perfection. Plastic surgery grows in popularity, and
gene manipulation seems headed towards designer babies, creating perfection.
Western society thinks only of itself. Britain and America are full of
people who never question what is around them, but spend plenty of time
worrying about themselves. For a lot of people, the grass is always greener
no matter how much they have. We need to wake up. There is a whole world
out there worrying not about whether they can get a signal on their mobile
phone or if they're developing a double chin, but where their next meal
is coming from, where various members of their family have disappeared
to, or when the war will end.
But it's probably too late. Whatever we do now, we may one day go down
in history as Generation Selfish. Perhaps we should start worrying about
© GEORGE OLDEN
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